Robot arm maker MDA puts wikis to work on intranet

TORONTO – The company that became famous for the robot arm it attached to space stations is trying to build in some flexibility to its corporate intranet through the use of wikis.

Speaking at the Information Highways 2006 conference Wednesday, spokespeople from MDA Corp. and the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) discussed the knowledge management capabilities offered by wikis, the software programs that allow easy updates and editing of Web pages without any knowledge of HTML. Wikis gained widespread recognition through the popularity of Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia whose entries are composed and updated by its users.

Dave Hook, manager of operations and configuration management at MDA in Mississauga, Ont., said he only started deploying wiki software, from open source provider PMWiki, in January. Though that pilot has been restricted to employees in his own department, he said it is already showing potential as a way of brainstorming on projects.

“They’re all mechanical engineers, so they’re capturing best practices of what’s going on in the building,” he said. “It does change the culture, in that you end up moving from a read-only kind of workplace into something more collaborative.”

Hook only manages MDA’s intranet on a part-time basis, and he said he started looking at wikis as a cost-effective alternative to more expensive content management systems. MDA already has its own document management systems for more formal, structured information such as specifications and drawings, but the intranet serves as a place for many other kinds of information employees need. In the past MDA has hired students on a part-time basis to help assist with the intranet, but it has remained like most portals of its kind – irregularly updated, with an inconsistent look and feel.

“The trouble with using students is everybody wants to be their own Webmaster and do their own thing,” he said. “With wikis, you’re opening up a chance to contribute the intranet development. It’s less of a top-down kind of thing.”

Wikis also have their own built-in quality control, Hook added, in that users tend to fix any errors on their own. It also provides at least one feature that’s important in any CMS: version control, or the ability to trace back what changes were made to a document. This is particularly important in an age of increasing regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley, Hook said.

“Our IT staff was concerned about changes to any of our software, but they like this,” he said.

The downside of some wiki software is the complicated syntax involved, which Hook said could take as long to learn as HTML. That’s why MDA is thinking of migrating to Mediawiki, the same tool that serves as the foundation to Wikipedia, he said.

The OCLC, based in Dublin, Ohio, is taking a different approach in that it is using Wikis to open itself to the outside world. The OCLC operates a service called OpenWorldCat, which allows popular Web search engines such as Google and other partner sites to access millions of abridged notations from WorldCat, its online catalogue of libraries around the world. This is linked to a “Find in a Library” Web service, which in turn is connected to Web sites of libraries that have cataloged a specific resource in WorldCat.

Mary-Ann Dean, the OCLC’s director of Web initiatives, said the non-profit introduced a wiki into Find A Library to engage non-Library patrons and allow new forms of contributions from existing users. The wiki allows visitors to add their own personal reviews of a book in the service, much like services offered on Amazon.com, but it also allows them to create and edit a table of contents for a book, or simply a note on a book. The wiki was introduced last October and has so far attracted about 1,000 users, Dean said.

“Most of the usage we’ve seen so far is adding or editing the table of contents. It’s about structuring the data,” she said. “It’s surprising the things that people want to share.”

The OCLC plans to expand the wiki to allow partners to add more content. A newspaper might contribute a review of a book that ran in a recent issue, for example, or a student might post a copy of their book report.

Information Highways wraps up Thursday.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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